It is one of the most hotly-debated teachable moments within higher education so far in 2012. Late last month in an advanced reporting class, DePauw University visiting journalism professor Mark Tatge passed out a student-athlete’s public records — including her social media profiles and reports related to a recent arrest — for a session on accessing documents.
It spurred complaints from some of his own students and a subsequent investigation by DePauw administrators.
As The DePauw, the student newspaper at the Indiana school, first reported, “In [a recent] Investigative Reporting Techniques class, which teaches journalism students how to access public information, Tatge passed out a 17-page packet detailing the Jan. 27 arrest of sophomore Alison Stephens.
The front three pages were Stephens’ Facebook and Twitter profiles, available online. Other documents included her booking record, permission to travel out of state, her father’s drivers license, police incident report and other court proceedings. Tatge said that he chose the case to present because it was local, a breaking news story and involved a peer.”
Several students in the class who are friends or sorority sisters with Stephens were distressed by the depth to which Tatge laid out her personal information, without her permission or knowledge. They informed Stephens about the packet and related campus buzz grew quickly.
One camp has criticized Tatge for crassness, singling out and further embarrassing a student who has already had a tough semester (including an arrest on charges of public intoxication, resisting law enforcement, and criminal mischief). The university briefly investigated whether the packet’s distribution created “a hostile learning environment” for the student or her peers, ultimately clearing Tatge of any wrongdoing.
“My fear is a lot of people think journalism is about publicly humiliating people and invading their privacy, and it would be reasonable for people who look at this from the outside to think that’s what this professor was trying to teach them to do,” Poynter Institute senior faculty member and media ethics expert Kelly McBride said in an Education Writers Association report on the incident. “I can’t possibly believe that’s what he intended, but because he didn’t search for alternatives, people might draw that conclusion.”
Betsy Stephens, Alison’s mother, is among those who drew that conclusion. As she wrote to the DePauw, “The fact that a visiting professor would chose a current student’s records to teach investigative journalism is an assault to everyone on campus. Each student on campus is subject to the whim of whether a professor may or may not want to target them as the next ‘subject’. The lesson being taught could have been made just as strongly without harming a 19-year-old student.”
By comparison, some journalists and DePauw alumni have argued Tatge was well within his rights to utilize the records– all of which are public– and deserves kudos for attempting to present a records sampling relatable to students.
As Tatge, a 30-year journalism veteran who previously worked at Forbes and Wall Street Journal, said, “There seems to be a total misunderstanding of my intentions. I in no way intended to embarrass or humiliate anyone. This was a teaching exercise. This is a public record in a public Indiana court. People who get arrested and charged with a crime give up their right to privacy. If people don’t like this, then they should start a petition to change the U.S. Constitution.”
The bottom-line argument, from this perspective: Journalism, even in the classroom, is a real-world endeavor. As Columbus Dispatch senior reporter Randy Ludlow asked in the comments section of a related post on popular media blog JimRomenesko.com, “So, investigative reporting for beginners should exist of fantasy exercises, duck any use of public records and forgo any lessons that your reporting– the truth– will hurt feelings, create controversy and generate criticism?”
What do you think? Were the student’s records fair game and the foundation for a helpful class lesson? Or was the packet’s use an irresponsible targeting of a student that resulted in more harm than good?
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